Secrecy over foreign investment

A coverup for bureaucratic inertia, no doubt

The rejection letter couldn’t have been clearer. The Federal Government was holding plenty of documents that were pertinent to my freedom of information request — I just wasn’t going to get any of them. In fact, I would need to pay $416.62 just for the chance to officially receive a stack of blanked-out and redacted pages.

"Around 19 documents have been identified as potentially falling within the scope of your request. Given the nature of the documents I envisage that most, if not all, of the documents will be exempt from release,’’ the government wrote.

So what was the FOI targeted at... Troop movements in Afghanistan? The prime minister’s private schedule? The names of ASIO’s anti-terrorism informants?

No, it was a request for some basic facts and figures about the state of foreign investment in Australia’s residential real estate market.

Like the number of temporary residents who’ve purchased established dwellings around the country — and, specifically, how many times people have been pinged for breaking the rules. Not individual names and addresses, mind you, just general stats about how the enforcement regime has been working.

The kind of information that should appear in the Foreign Investment Review Board’s annual report or be available upon request, but for some reason necessitates a FOI filing to even attempt to get access. (FIRB’s annual reports are maddeningly unspecific, not to mention published at a snail’s pace. The 2009-10 report is most recent).

Tussling with governments over the release of information is just part of a reporter’s job, fair enough.

But this kind of blanket ban looks suspiciously political.

The case for tightening up foreign investment regulation was made quite clearly by the Labor government when it changed the rules in April 2010 in response to growing community anger.

"The Rudd Government is acting to make sure that investment in Australian real estate by temporary residents and foreign non-residents, is within the law, meets community expectations and doesn't place pressure on housing availability for Australians," said [Assistant Treasurer Senator Nick Sherry].

"The new provisions announced today will mean that anyone trying to flout Australia's strict foreign investment rules will face tough new penalties that will be fully enforced."

Treasury and FIRB personnel must have missed the point of that announcement since all the documents related to judging the success of those new measures have been deemed out of bounds.

My next step is to contest the fee and the document exemptions on the basis that the release of the information is in the public interest. And I’m going to frequently quote Mr Sherry when I do it.


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